Earthquake damage to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant ignited global interest in nuclear policy, and those who searched Wikipedia – the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit – discovered U.S. policy information compiled by Western Carolina University student Kasey Baker. As a student in a graduate-level policy analysis course at WCU, Baker was required to research and write an article for Wikipedia as part of an initiative to improve the quality of public policy content on the public site. “I felt it was necessary to compile a complete list of all the nuclear policy and legislation in America, and this was prior to the Fukushima incident, which only added to the need for this article,” said Baker, whose “Nuclear Policy of the United States” article was recently featured on the Wikipedia homepage.
Western Carolina was one of 21 universities from Harvard to Berkeley selected to participate this spring in the Wikimedia Foundation’s grant-funded Public Policy Initiative. Through the initiative, students author a Wikipedia article on public policy topics while working with experienced Wikipedians who guide them in citing only reliable sources such as scholarly articles or books.
Chris Cooper, associate professor of political science and public affairs, and director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, incorporated participation into his course as a hands-on way for students to understand, analyze and communicate public policy. “When students post something on Wikipedia, people respond,” said Cooper, who will share WCU’s experience this summer at an invitation-only Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit. “The students have to defend their position and craft their case in a way that is true, honest and palatable to readers. It ends up being a laboratory for democratic debate.”
His students selected a range of topics to update on Wikipedia. Anne Cortes, a breast cancer survivor caring for a husband who has an inoperable brain tumor, chose to research patient-centered outcomes. Another student, Billy Schweig, chose “post-detection policy” – procedures centered on how to respond in the event of contact with intelligent alien life. “It isn’t exactly the most pertinent issue when it comes to contemporary policy debates, but if it were to happen, you can bet that about 6 billion people would want to know NASA’s policy pretty quickly,” Schweig said.
Baker estimated the time it took to research and publish his article about U.S. nuclear policy took at least 55 hours. In addition, he spent about 25 hours on Skype calls with his mentor to make edits, format sources, write text and script HTML. “This was like no project I have ever worked on before,” said Baker. “The level of accuracy required blew me away. Every line must be cited. Any information that is biased will get your paged marked as ‘The neutrality of this article is disputed.’ When you realize that thousands of people will be viewing your page a month and many of them are highly knowledgeable on your topic and can change it, then you start to evaluate the validity of your sources in a different light.”